Atlus talks Persona 5 and the declining Japanese console market

Giant publisher and developer Atlus is behind some of the biggest titles coming out of Japan at present.

With a strong performance from titles such as Persona 5, Atlus boss Naoto Hiraoka chalks 2016 up as a win: 2016 has been a great year for Atlus,” he says.

Though we’ve had fewer releases this year than 2015, we’ve had a strong showing of titles, with Odin Sphere Leifthrasir, Ace Team’s Deadly Tower of Monsters, SNK’s The King of Fighters XIV, and the latest entry in the Shin Megami Tensei series, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, which were all received very favorably.

In Japan, Etrian Odyssey V and Persona 5 were chart-toppers, and proved that our lineup is as strong as ever.

Persona 5’s release in the West is one of the largest localisation projects we’ve had to tackle to date, and we have confidence that it will become an essential JRPG title. It really was a great year for us.”

Indeed, Persona 5 in particular has been a big seller for the firm. It was the fastest-selling Atlus title ever when it hit shelves in Japan, shifting 437,929 units in its first two weeks.

The firm also has high expectations for the game’s Western performance. The title hits shelves in the US, Europe and the UK on April 4th 2017.

We could not imagine how players would react to Persona 5 at first,” Hiraoka says.

However, it has obliterated all expectations in Japan. The game’s unique style and aesthetic appeals to so many people beyond our traditional fanbase. Working closely with Sony Japan and achieving a simultaneous release with the PS4 Slim, I think we did well in distributing to a large audience.

It was incredible seeing people at TGS and E3 cosplaying as the characters before the game’s release, and that each trailer we released got over 1 million views.

Obviously we have very high expectations for it in the West, and feel that it will become a representative title of Atlus, not only in Japan but in the West as well. Each and every staff member is working extremely hard to ensure it sets the gold standard for our localisations and culturalisations.”

Yet it’s no secret that the Japanese console space is in trouble. In 2015, its games market fell to its lowest point in 26 years, with revenue dipping by 13 per cent year-on-year, according to data provided to MCV by Famitsu.

"Persona 5 has obliterated all expectations in Japan."

Naoto Hiraoka, Atlus

There are many factors for this occurring, but the largest is undoubtedly the rise and now dominance of mobile releases in the Japanese market. It seems prudent then for Japanese companies in the ‘traditional’ games space to spread their business to other territories.

The sales ratio of Atlus titles is approximately the same, which is a very rare case in Japanese-based publishing,” Hiraoka says.

True, the market is narrowing thanks to the prevalence of mobile phone games, and the shrinking of the ‘otaku’ [geek] culture in Japan, but our target audience is not only Japan. After our success in North America, I believe the next step is to move on to Europe; there are many consumers who hold a strong interest in Japanese culture, such as France. We are striving to serve everyone as best we can.”

It’s perhaps fortunate then that there has been growing popularity for JRPG titles in the West. Hiraoka even believes that current trends in games design are making these titles more approachable.

We’re seeing a resurgence of Japanese developers, that’s for certain,” he says. There are a ton of JRPGs slated for early 2017, including Persona 5, that have a lot of buzz around them, which is good. They are still very much their own niche when you look at the average gamer’s tastes, but it seems to currently be a growing segment. We’re even seeing multiplayer shooters like Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 start to truly embrace story and world-building and characters, which is to say a lot of the mainstream gaming titles are making it easier or more acceptable for gamers to approach a 30-hour or longer JRPG. All in all, we’re very happy that JRPGs seemed to have returned from the brink, and we’re forging ahead by continuing to deliver these games to the west.”

It wasn’t always this way, however. Altus says it has been working to engage with consumers who enjoy the Japanese subculture.

In recent years, Atlus has been working on our branding strategy,” Hiraoka explains.

The Japanese subculture consists of games, manga, anime and so on, and we focus on gaming as the core of our activities, hoping to become a leader, while delivering the best creative content to our fans. There was a stage where Japanese games went through a dark time.

However, with the appearance of the likes of Demon’s Souls, Persona 4 and Catherine, we were able to deliver products which caught the eye of overseas consumers once again. Atlus’ strength is developing RPGs, and creating what we are good at to deliver something enjoyable. That this elicits positive reactions from fans is our greatest pleasure.”

Part of the growth in popularity of niche RPGs is that Japanese companies such as Atlus continue to support formats like the 3DS and PlayStation Vita outside of their home. Atlus has also announced it will be supporting Nintendo’s new Switch machine.

Although the Japanese, North American, and European markets differ greatly, Japan and North America still have a fervent fanbase,” Hiraoka explains.

As a third-party publisher for Nintendo’s platform, we have seen that 3DS owners are looking for mature role-playing game experiences, and JRPGs fit right into this genre. The PlayStation Vita is also a formidable piece of hardware, and it has a strong fanbase as well. It has become a solid home for fans of JRPGs, and we’re happy to contribute with Atlus-developed and Atlus-localised titles.

Our participation as a publisher for the Nintendo Switch has been announced, and while we don’t have any news on that front to share, the device is making for some interesting potential.”

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